Fear Of Whales

Tales of a reluctant minister

Literal Sense of the Text

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How do we read the bible? It is a deceptively simple question.

I believe it is all about the author. Here’s what I mean

Some teachers believe in the “Plain Reading” of the text. The most extreme plain reading theology would say that the true theology of scripture can best be determined by whatever the bible appears to mean, most obviously, on first reading, by the uneducated and unbiased reader. This is a very very conservative understanding of the bible and it is problematic for a number of reasons (What happens when what’s obvious to you is not so obvious to me? What if what’s obvious to both of us does not make sense?). For this reason it’s seen more in little country churches than among scholars. The most talk one will hear about the Plain Reading in serious academic circles is from conservative theologians who think it is worth taking into account, or considering, but not necessarily swallowing whole.

Way on the other side of the spectrum is the Postmodern Reading. That would argue that the text itself has no inherent meaning (it’s just squiggles on a page) and that it is given meaning by the reader depending on the reader’s context. Therefore a passage about freedom for the captives is rightly read differently by the slave (seeking abolition) than it is by the slave-owner (seeking freedom from sin-guilt). This also, is very problematic sometimes, and is generally hated in fundamentalist churches. but much more popular in academia.

There are a whole bunch of other paradigms in the middle. But these two are sufficient to hang my hammock between, in order to endorse the paradigm I support, which I call the “literal sense” of the text. In a literal reading (not to be confused with a literalistic reading which would discount metaphors etc.) understands the text in terms of the author, not the reader. The true meaning of the text is whatever “the original author intended to communicate to his original audience by what he wrote” and therefore the most powerful interpretive tools are the ones that bring us to a closer understanding of that.

Do I have perfect knowledge of the author? I sure don’t! But I refuse to shoot for the wrong target just because it is easier to hit. Things like historical research, and study of original languages give me insights and clues into which particular direction or turn of phrase is more likely to belong to the author, and therefore to be the correct interpretation, but it’s all a likelihood, an educated guess. This humility with respect to my interpretation, combined with clarity with respect to my objective provides the key formula to why and how I believe most of what I believe about what the Bible says.


Written by RyanGaffney

September 30, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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